Your guide to adaptogens and their benefits

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are a category of herbs and mushrooms that help protect your body from stress. They balance your body’s reaction to stress by modulating your adrenal response and other physiological functions. Some examples of adaptogens are ashwagandha, reishi and eleuthero. A list of adaptogens and their benefits will be shared later in this post.

Here’s what adaptogens can do:

  1. improve the capacity and ability of your body to adapt to stress
  2. minimize the effects of stress
  3. can delay or minimize the onset of exhaustion [1]

In addition to this protection from stress, adaptogens can help:

  • fight fatigue,
  • increase focus and endurance when fatigued,
  • support immune function,
  • improve overall wellness and sense of well-being.

Adaptogens can help you be less sensitive to stressors, so, instead of reaching a point of exhaustion and burnout, you stay in a prolonged phase where you are resistant to stress.[2]

You can think of adaptogens kind of like a thermostat. As you face more and more stressors and the intensity of your stress response starts to increase, the thermostat will click on (adaptogens doing their thing) and keep your stress response from going sky high and then dropping you to the ground (exhaustion doing its thing).

what are adaptogens

Should I take adaptogenic herbs?

Enduring constant and high levels of stress is so prevalent today. It's a challenge to prioritize "future you" and cut out the stressors that seem unavoidable in the present moment, but there are potential significant consequences of chronic stress in the long term. 

When you are faced with a stressful situation, your body produces cortisol. The cortisol helps your body deal with the stress. However, when this becomes daily or constant, your body produces too much cortisol. You can think of this state as being “stressed out”.

Under stress, the body goes from its normal, balanced state to a heightened state (of resistance). This heightened state stimulates the nervous system, endocrine system, and immune function in the short term. If this goes on over time, all of those systems become weakened. [3]

If your ability to cope with physical, mental and emotional stressors is low, those external stressors can become internal illness. This outcome is preventable! It’s so important to take the steps today to manage your stress.

Sometimes the sources of your stress are very obvious, but some aren’t as easy to identify. Stress can take many forms, here’s a few examples:

  • constant anxiety and worry
  • ongoing lack of sleep
  • mental stress of modern life
  • exposure to toxins
  • physical stress such as prolonged physical exertion, exposure to cold, etc.
  • poor diet, low physical activity (metabolic stress)

Adaptogens are a powerful preventative and lifestyle medicine in Ayurveda. Adaptogens are generally safe, but it is always recommended to consult a health practitioner if you have concerns. 

Combining adaptogens with stress-reducing activities like meditation, walks in nature, deep breathing and journalling, is a simple and effective way to future-proof your stress response. Some more difficult steps would be to cut toxic people out of your life, talk to a counsellor regularly, create boundaries around your work/play hours and get off your phone.

The decision to add adaptogens to your day is a personal one, but now you know there is evidence of the health benefits of adaptogens and their ability to promote overall wellness.

Our list of adaptogens and their benefits

Not all herbs are adaptogens! With the popularity of adaptogens becoming a marketing buzzword, companies are touting many of their herbal ingredients as adaptogens. More on this later! For now, know that there is commonly agreed upon criteria for categorizing a herb or mushroom as an adaptogen. Here is the criteria:

  1. An adaptogen is nontoxic, not harmful to the body.
  2. An adaptogen helps the body resist stress in a non-specific way. What does this mean? They must help the body in multiple different ways and resist a broad spectrum of stressors.
  3. An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on the body - returning physiological functions to homeostasis (balance/equilibrium).

Here is non-exhaustive list of adaptogens and their benefits:

Ashwaghanda
Eleuthero root
Rhodiola rosea
Reishi
Maca root
Cordyceps


Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is a calming adaptogen that supports endocrine function and helps the body manage stress. It has a long history of use in Ayurveda. Ashwagandha has a reputation for clearing the mind, calming the nervous system and promoting deep sleep (but does not make you sleepy/tired.)[4]

It is a little bitter with earthy/herbal notes, so it’s best mixed with smoothies or lattes with stronger flavours like turmeric, coffee or cocoa/cacao. We include ashwagandha in our London Fog oat milk latte.

 London Fog oat milk latte with lions mane

Eleuthero root (a.k.a siberian ginseng)

Eleuthero is an energizing adaptogen, but stimulating. It’s nourishing to the nervous system and adrenal glands. Eleuthero is particularly good for people aged 20-40 who are generally pretty healthy, but are under more stress than they usually would be. It’s great for shift workers, students and people who’s schedule changes from day to day.

Cordyceps

Cordyceps have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine since the 1700s (or even earlier!). Cordyceps is a great adaptogen for energy. It has a history of use among athletes to support energy, endurance and stamina. As an adaptogen, cordyceps also promotes endocrine health, immune function and your body’s ability to adapt to stress.

Try eleuthero and cordyceps in our adaptogen matcha latte blends:

matcha energy adaptogen latte mixmatcha focus adaptogen latte blend

 

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola is a potent adaptogen and nervous system tonic. It is a stimulating adaptogen that can enhance alertness, reduce fatigue, improve memory and relieve depression [5]. If stress is giving you a short attention span and making it hard for you to be productive, you can consider rhodiola.

We use rhodiola in combination with lion’s mane mushroom in our Brainiac Chai Latte to help boost mood and help you focus.

brainiac chat latte with lions mane

Reishi

Known as the Queen of mushrooms, reishi restores the nervous system and helps you chill out and feel more emotional balance. Reishi is an adaptogen for calm, stress and sleep (but doesn’t make you sleepy/drowsy). Reishi is a special plant and revered herb with a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Maca root

Maca has traditionally been used as a nutrient dense food by the Quechua People in the Andes [6], so not only is it a promising adaptogen, it’s also a superfood. Maca is an adaptogen for energy, but is not a stimulant. Meaning, you won’t get a crash like you would with caffeine or sugar. Maca can also lift your mood.

We use a reishi and maca (1000mg of each per serving) in our Cacao & Reishi latte blend. It tastes like hot chocolate, except lighter, a little nutty and extremely comforting. Make this latte anytime you need an energy and mood boost with minimal caffeine.

cacao & reishi hot chocolate 


How to take adaptogens

If you’re new to adaptogens, you may want to start with more nourishing and calming ones like ashwagandha, eleuthero (siberian ginseng), or holy basil (tulsi). These adaptogens will help you respond better to stress over time, raise your day-to-day energy levels, but will not be overstimulating.

Adaptogens are generally very safe herbs, so you can play around with the daily dose and see how you feel. You can start with a recommended dose from a healthcare practitioner, if you want. Experiment with different adaptogens and amounts and be patient until you feel a shift. The next section touches on some indicators that you’ve found the right one.

An important note on mushrooms:

Mushroom extract or mushroom powder - which should you look for?

It’s important to know if your mushrooms are straight powders (ground mushrooms) or extract powders. If you want to maximize the amount of beta-glucans in your mushrooms (and therefore the adaptogenic and immune benefits of the mushroom), you’ll want to choose extract powders and mushroom products that are fruiting body only. The extraction process also allows the beta-glucans and other beneficial substances to be more readily available to the body.

If your mushroom is a regular powder and not an extract, it will, however, have more nutrients than an extract since it contains the whole mushroom - B-vitamins, minerals and proteins, for example, but far less beta-glucans.

Powders can also contain a high amount of fillers because they often contain the grain that the mushroom was grown on (rice, sorghum, etc.).

At Amoda, we only use mushroom extract powders and the fruiting body of the mushroom.


When will I feel the benefits of adaptogens?

Each adaptogenic herb has its own unique benefits. Some benefits can be felt immediately, like the energy boost from maca or eleuthero, the focus from rhodiola or the calm from ashwagandha or reishi. The adaptogenic benefits to help cope with stress takes some time. Adaptogens do need time to build up in your system; to really incorporate into your cells and body systems. We recommend taking an adaptogen consistently for at least 4 weeks.

Energy levels are a good indicator early on that an adaptogen is the right fit for you. You should see your baseline energy improve, where you don’t “need” that third or fourth cup of coffee. This type of energy is different from the boost you’ll get from, say, rhodiola or eleuthero. We’re talking about your general daily energy levels here.

 

References

[1, 3, 5, 6] Winston, D., & Maimes, S. (2019). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief (2nd Edition, Updated and Expanded ed.). Healing Arts Press.

[2] Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity, Alexander Panossian, Georg Wikman,Pharmaceuticals (Basel) 2010 Jan; 3(1): 188–224. Published online 2010 Jan 19. doi: 10.3390/ph3010188]

[4] Gladstar, R. (2001). Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal: A Guide to Living Life with Energy, Health, and Vitality (1st Printing ed.). Storey Publishing, LLC.

Additional references:

Cohen, Marc Maurice. “Tulsi - Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons.” Journal of Ayurveda and integrative medicine vol. 5,4 (2014): 251-9. doi:10.4103/0975-9476.146554

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